Thursday, February 21, 2013
A debate has ignited in the bookosphere after news surfaced that Amazon had applied for a patent on technology that would let people sell "used" e-books through Amazon.
Author John Scalzi initially reacted harshly: "I’m awfully suspicious that it means nothing good for writers who want to get paid for their work using the current compensation model" and then reacted even more harshly: "I would rather you pirate the eBook than buy it used."
Consultant Mike Shatzkin rightly cautioned that just because Amazon has the technology doesn't mean they're going into this business, and at TeleReads Marilynn Byerly notes that a group called the Owners Rights Initiative is fighting to give digital owners the rights to resell digital works.
For me personally, it's hard to wrap my head around what a "used" digital files even means. A digital copy does not get worn, the pages don't yellow over time, there are not dog-eared corners. A "used" digital copy is exactly like a brand new digital copy. The idea of "used" digital anything is pretty meaningless.
While details have been somewhat scarce on the specifics of the technology Amazon possesses, what I'd guess it involves is the ability to transfer the ownership of a single digital copy from one person to another, deleting original copy so ownership is only retained by one person. When I'm done reading about the fiftieth shade of Grey, I can sell the copy to someone else and I no longer have access to it.
So. In this new world you would have "new" e-books for sale alongside "used' e-books, only the two are completely indistinguishable from one another. But the "used" e-book would inevitably be cheaper, because the seller is more motivated to sell. If I'm done reading something, I'm willing to take less than I paid for it if only because I want to ensure I get something back. It's no skin off my back to undercut the list price.
Authors and publishers are not currently compensated for used e-book sales, and if that paradigm were translated into the "used" e-book world, they would be undermined by completely identical and cheaper copies for sale alongside their "new" e-books. It's hard to imagine any scenario other than the pie shrinking even further for authors and publishers.
And yet... There are plenty of people who want to do away with DRM and sharing speed bumps entirely, which would make it extremely easy for people to sell or share their "used" e-books with anyone who wants it, whether that is a personal friend or someone they've met in a discussion forum or anywhere else on the Internet. People who are opposed to a used e-book paradigm should consider that one alternate scenario is one where non-DRM'd books are running rampant throughout the Internet (or rather, even more than they already are currently).
Lots of readers have been rankled by the fact that when you buy an e-book you don't have the same rights and flexibility as you do for a print book. It's hard to give it away and it's impossible to resell it. It's a license, not true ownership. It's frustrating when you just want to pass it on to a family member or friend like you can a paperback.
It's always seemed to me that the realities of digital publishing should account for the difference in physical form. Digital copies are fundamentally different than print copies, and arguing that we should treat them with the exact same rules strikes me as disingenuous. We have to strike a reasonable balance between the convenience of consumers and fairness to content creators.
Is a "used" e-book marketplace the right way of striking that balance? I'm not sure. A mechanism for transferring ownership of an e-book on a one-to-one basis is appealing, and as a reader I think I might like to have that option. I'd like it even more if authors were compensated for resales.
It's certainly not the worst solution I've ever heard. What do you think?
Art: "Novgorod Marketplace" by Appolinary Vasnetsov